3 billion birds missing

Both Eastern and Western Meadowlarks show declines.

We know how 3 billion breeding birds disappeared in last 48 years

By Barb Gorges

            “Decline of the North American avifauna” is the title of the report published online by the journal Science on Sept. 19, 2019.

            The bird conservation groups I belong to summed it up as “3 billion birds lost.”

            In a nutshell (eggshell?), there are three billion fewer, 29 percent fewer, breeding birds of 529 species in North America then in 1970.

            The losses are spread across common birds, like western meadowlark, as well as less common birds, in all biomes. While the grasslands, where we live, lost only 720 million breeding birds, that’s 53 percent—the highest percentage of the biomes. And 74 percent of grassland species are declining. Easy-to-understand infographics are available at https://www.3billionbirds.org/.

            Two categories of birds have increased in numbers: raptors and waterfowl. Their numbers were very low in 1970 due to pesticides and wetland degradation, respectively. Eliminating DDT and restoring wetlands, among other actions, allowed them to prosper.

                The 11 U.S. and Canadian scientists crunched data from ongoing bird surveys including the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the Christmas Bird Count, the International Shorebird Survey, and the Partners in Flight Avian Conservation Database.

Weather radar, which shows migrating birds simply as biomass, shows a 14 percent decrease from 2007 to 2017.

            Two of the contributors to the study are scientists I’ve talked to and whose work I respect. Adriaan Dokter, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is working with me, Audubon Rockies and the Roundhouse developers. We want to see if weather radar can predict the best nights to shut down wind turbines for the safety of migratory birds passing through the wind farm they are buiding at the southwest corner of I80 and I25.

            I’ve met Arvind Panjabi, with Bird Conservancy of the Rockies headquartered in Ft. Collins, Colorado, on several occasions. BCR does bird studies primarily in the west as well as educational programs. 

            How does the number of birds make a difference to you and me? Birds are the easiest animals to count and serve as indicators of ecological health. If bird numbers are down, we can presume other fauna numbers are out of whack too—either, for instance, too many insects devouring crops or too few predators keeping pest numbers down. Ecological changes affect our food, water and health.

            The decline of common bird species is troubling because you would think they would be taking advantage of the decline of species less resilient to change. But even invasive species like European starling and house sparrow are declining.

The biggest reasons for avian population loss are habitat loss, agricultural intensification (no “weedy” areas left), coastal disturbance and human activities. Climate change amplifies all the problems.

A coalition including Audubon, American Bird Conservancy, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies and Georgetown University have an action plan.

7 steps we can all take to help birds

            There are seven steps we can all take. The steps, with details, are at https://www.3billionbirds.org/. Most of them I’ve written about over the last 20 years so you can also search my archives, https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/.    

1. Make windows safer. Turn off lights at night inside and outside large buildings like the Herschler Building and the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens during migration. Break up the reflections of vegetation birds see in our home windows during the day.

2. Keep cats indoors. Work on the problem of feral cats. They are responsible for more than two-thirds of the 2.6 billion birds per year cats kill.

3. Use native plants. There are 63,000 square miles of lawn in the U.S. currently only attractive to birds if they have pests or weeds.

4. Avoid pesticides. They are toxic to birds and the insects they eat. Go organic. Support U.S. bill H.R. 1337, Saving America’s Pollinators Act. Contact Wyoming’s Representative Liz Cheney and ask that registration of neonicotinoids be suspended. Birds eating seeds with traces of neonics are not as successful surviving and breeding.

5. Drink shade-grown coffee. It helps 42 species of migratory North American birds and is economically beneficial to farmers.

6. Reduce plastic use. Even here, mid-continent rather than the ocean, plastic can be a problem for birds. Few companies are interested in recycling plastic anymore.

7. Do citizen science. Help count birds through volunteer surveys like eBird, Project FeederWatch (new count season begins Nov. 9), the Christmas Bird Count (Cheyenne’s is Dec. 28), and if you are a good birder, take on a Breeding Bird Survey route next spring.

To aid grasslands in particular, support Audubon’s conservation ranching initiative, https://www.audubon.org/conservation/ranching.

In a related Science article, Ken Rosenberg, the report’s lead author, says, “I am not saying we can stop the decline of every bird species, but I am weirdly hopeful.”

Western Meadowlarks are also in severe decline. Audubon Photography Awards 2012, photographer’s name not available.

Keep birds safe

2018-05 Catio Jeffrey Gorges

A “catio” is a place for cats to hang out outside that keeps the birds safe–and the cats too. Photo by Jeffrey Gorges.

Published May 6, 2018 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Keep birds safe this time of year” and also at https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/keep-birds-safe-this-time-of-year.

By Barb Gorges

It’s that time of year that we need to think about bird safety —migration and nesting season.

2018-05abcbirdtape

Bird Tape is available from the American Bird Conservancy. Photo courtesy ABC.

The peak of spring migration in Cheyenne is around mid-May. If you have a clean window that reflects sky, trees and other greenery, you’ll get a few avian visitors bumping into it. Consider applying translucent stickers to the outside of the window or Bird Tape from the American Bird Conservancy, https://abcbirds.org.

If a bird hits your window, make sure your cat is not out there picking it up. The bird may only be stunned. If necessary, put the bird somewhere safe and where it can fly off when it recovers.

How efficient is your outdoor lighting? In addition to wasting money, excessive light confuses birds that migrate at night. Cheyenne keeps getting brighter and brighter at night because people install lighting that shines up as well as down, especially at businesses with parking lots. It is also unhealthy for trees and other vegetation, not to mention people trying to get a good night’s sleep.

Do you have nest boxes? Get them cleaned out before new families move in. Once the birds move in or you find a nest elsewhere, do you know the proper protocol for observing it?

You might be interested in NestWatch, https://nestwatch.org/, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology citizen science program for reporting nesting success.

Their Nest Monitoring Manual says to avoid checking the nest in the morning when the birds are busy, or at dusk when predators are out. Wait until afternoon. Walk past the nest rather than up to it and back leaving a scent trail pointing predators straight to the nest. And avoid bird nests when the young are close to fledging—when they have most of their feathers. We don’t want them to get agitated and leave the nest prematurely.

Some birds are “flightier” than others. Typically, birds nesting alongside human activity—like the robins that built the nest on top of your porch light—are not going to abandon the nest if you come by. Rather, they will be attacking you. But a hawk in a more remote setting will not tolerate people. Back off and get out your spotting scope or your big camera lenses.

If your presence causes a young songbird to jump out of the nest, you can try putting it back in. NestWatch says to hold your hand or a light piece of fabric over the top of the nest until the young bird calms down so it doesn’t jump again. Often though, the parents will take care of young that leave the nest prematurely. Hopefully, there aren’t any loose cats waiting for a snack.

2018-05Henry-Barb Gorges

Cats learn to enjoy the comforts of being indoors. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Loose cats and dogs should also be controlled on the prairie between April and July, and mowing avoided. That is because we have ground-nesting birds here on the edge of the Great Plains such as western meadowlark, horned lark and sometimes the ferruginous hawk.

There will always be young birds that run into trouble, either natural or human-aided. Every wild animal eventually ends up being somebody else’s dinner. But if you decide to help an injured animal, be sure the animal won’t injure you. For instance, black-crowned night-herons will try to stab your eyes. It is also illegal to possess wild animals without a permit so call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator like the Cheyenne Pet Clinic, 307-635-4121, or the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, 307-777-4600.

Avoid treating your landscape with pesticides. The insect pest dying from toxic chemicals you spread could poison the bird that eats it. Instead, think of pest species as bird food. Or at least check with the University of Wyoming Extension office, 307-633-4383, for other ways to protect your lawn and vegetables.

Are you still feeding birds? We take our seed feeders down in the summer because otherwise the heat and moisture make dangerous stuff grow in them if you don’t clean them every few days. Most seed-eating birds are looking for insects to feed their young anyway. Keep your birdbaths clean too.

 

2018-05hummingbirds-Sandia Crest-Barb Gorges

Hummingbirds fill up at a feeder on Sandia Crest, New Mexico, in mid-July. Photo by Barb Gorges.

However, we put up our hummingbird feeder when we see the first fall migrants show up in our yard mid-July, though they prefer my red beebalm and other bright tubular flowers. At higher elevations outside Cheyenne hummers might spend the summer.

Make sure your hummingbird feeder has bright red on it. Don’t add red dye to the nectar though. The only formula that is good for hummingbirds is one part white sugar to four parts water boiled together. Don’t substitute any other sweeteners as they will harm the birds. If the nectar in the feeder gets cloudy after a few days, replace it with a fresh batch.

And finally, think about planting for birds. Check out the Habitat Hero information at http://rockies.audubon.org/programs/habitat-hero-education.

Enjoy the bird-full season!

Habitat Hero workshop in Cheyenne, Wyoming, a great success

The Habitat Hero logoHabitat Heroes — Bee Bird Friendly,
Learn to Garden for Bees, Birds and Butterflies workshop March 17, 2018, was a great success.

To learn more about the Habitat Hero program sponsored by Audubon Rockies, geared for those of us gardening in Wyoming and Colorado, see http://rockies.audubon.org/programs/habitat-hero-education.

The Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society also has information at its website, https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/habitat-hero/.

Plans are in the works for the 5th Annual Cheyenne Habitat Hero workshop spring 2019.

 

Eulogy for an indoor cat

joey-indoor-cat-by-barb-gorges

Joey the indoor cat. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Jan. 1, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Eulogy for an indoor cat.”

By Barb Gorges

Today I write a eulogy for Joey, an ordinary orange and white house cat who lived with our family.

I offer the details of her life as an example of the advantages of an indoor cat.

Joey died in the fall at the age of 18 ½ years old. She was my writing companion, sometimes draped over my left shoulder, sometimes over my lap. She exuded enough cat hair to melt down my previous laptop by clogging up the fan.

She was opinionated. She talked about a lot of things, her self-assured gaze drilling into you, assessing you.

Joey and her brother were products of a liaison between an unknown father and a footloose mother belonging to a friend. Our boys, in grade school and junior high then, enjoyed building climbing gyms for the kittens and playing catch and release cat toy games with them.

We took the cats outside occasionally on harness and leash, but Joey’s brother soon refused after stepping on a bee and getting stung.

Joey was always the one to look for before opening a door. It wasn’t that she wanted to go outside. She just wanted to go to the other side, whether into the basement or into a closet. If she did get out the front door, all we had to do was quietly leave the door open, circle around behind her, where she was quivering under a bush, and gently herd her towards the door.

However, one time she escaped without us realizing it right away. It took three days for her to come home and start pounding on the aluminum storm door. We were the only happy people that week after 9/11.

One good reason to keep your cat indoors is so you don’t have to worry about them. Of course, you could build them a “catio”—safe enclosed space for them to enjoy the outdoors. The enclosure would also prevent your cat from hunting local wildlife.

Even if it isn’t important to you to save billions of animals each year—birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians—from domestic cats, if you have children, you don’t want them in contact with cats that roam outdoors.

Cats are the hosts for toxoplasma gondii, a parasite with eggs that persist in soil. We know it causes serious health problems for pregnant women who come in contact with cat feces. But we now know that a large percentage of the global human population is infected and studies suggest toxoplasma gondii can cause behavioral and personality changes and is associated with disorders including schizophrenia.

Outdoor cats, whether owned or feral, are a bigger and more complicated problem than we ever expected. You’ll want to read “Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer,” by Peter P. Marra and Chris Santella, neither of whom are cat haters.

For an introduction to the book, see the video of Marra’s talk last month at www.AllAboutBirds.org. Search with the term “cat wars.”

One moment Joey was a tiny kitten, and the next moment an adolescent adventurer, then an unflappable middle-aged cat who would still perform amazing acrobatics to catch miller moths buzzing ceiling lights.

And then she became my elder, content to follow the daily rotation of sunny spots around the house, lounging among the house plants while watching birds at the feeder outside.

I believe Joey and her brother, who died of natural causes a few years ago, had better lives, longer lives, than if they had to roam outside in the hazardous world. I know I’ve had a better life because they were inside with me.

In Joey’s memory, please work to keep cats off the street.

xxx

 

Feed winter birds for fun

Goldfinches

An American Goldfinch (left) and a Lesser Goldfinch (right) share a thistle feeder on a snowy day in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Dec. 6, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Feed winter birds for fun.”

By Barb Gorges

Feeding birds in your backyard is a time-honored tradition. It makes a great gateway to building your interest in birds. But there are a few things you should keep in mind if you decide to put up a feeder.

Birds don’t need our food. They are good at finding natural food. Don’t worry if you don’t have food out for them every day, although being consistent means you are more likely to see interesting birds.

Bird feeding is really about enjoying the birds, so put your feeders close to windows you look out of often. Be sure to put them close so that birds won’t hit your windows at high speed when leaving your feeder.

Keep your feeding operation affordable. I’ve had people complain bird seed is expensive. But it’s up to you how much seed to put out and how often. Fill feeders at the time of day you can enjoy watching the birds.

Never put out more feeders than you can keep clean, or clean up after. Feeders can get gunky and can spread diseases. Every couple weeks, clean them with soap and water, maybe a little bleach, and rinse well. If you see a sick bird, don’t put the feeders back up for a week. We usually don’t feed in the summer because even more disgusting stuff grows in feeder debris.

Be sure to keep the seed hulls swept up every few days, or think about feeding hulled sunflower seeds.

Don’t be cheap. Rather than the bags of mixed seed, go for the black-oil sunflower seed. Seed mixes often contain filler seed—or at least seed that birds around here won’t eat—and you’ll just be sweeping it up anyway. Black oil sunflower seed attracts a wide variety of seed-eating birds. Buy the 40-pound sack at the feed store for a better price per pound. If it still seems too expensive, feed only the amount you can afford each day.

Leave the cats indoors. There are many reasons cats should live indoors fulltime, including their health and safety, but really, is it fair to invite birds to your yard where a predator lurks? The feeder may be on a pole or hanging above the cat, but certain birds prefer to feed on the spilled seed on the ground.

On the other hand, if a neighbor cat stakes out your yard, you can make sure the area around the feeder has no place for a cat to hide. I’ve also heard of putting up a 2-foot high wire fence around the feeder, maybe at a radius of about 6 feet. The time it takes the predator to jump the fence gives the birds enough advanced warning to get out of the way.

Offer variety. Some birds like tube-style and hopper feeders. Others that prefer feeding on the ground can learn to use a shelf feeder. Consider nyjer thistle, which is expensive, but use a special feeder for it designed with smaller seed ports or ports that are below the perches, something goldfinches and chickadees can handle but others can’t. Add a suet or seed cake. It may help draw in woodpeckers and chickadees. Offer peanuts and you may get blue jays—and squirrels.

Don’t clean up your flowerbeds in the fall. The seed-eating birds attracted to your feeders will enjoy the seed heads. Plus, tree leaves, while providing mulch, may also provide a variety of eggs of insects (many beneficial) that the birds enjoy picking over.

On a frigid day, have open water in a birdbath. It is almost more attractive than food. Find some kind of shallow bowl, preferably with sloping sides, which won’t break if the water freezes. It should be easy to bring in the house to thaw out. Or get an electric heater designed for birdbaths or dog water dishes.

For more detailed feeding information, go to my archives at www.CheyenneBirdBanter.wordpress.com. Look for “Bird feeding” in the list of topics.

Study your visitors. From your feeder-watching window, scan your trees and shrubs and garden beds to see if you can get a glimpse of more than house finches and house sparrows, especially in the spring. Of the 85 species I’ve seen in or above our yard, I’ve recorded 27 from November through March, prime feeder season.

Share your bird sightings at www.eBird.org, or for $18, this winter you can take part in Project FeederWatch, www.feederwatch.org. It isn’t too late to sign up. You get a nifty bird calendar poster and a handbook. Even if you don’t participate, the website is full of information about bird feeding and feeder birds.

Have fun. However, if you find it isn’t fun, take down the feeders. Reduce your stress by going for a walk and enjoy the birds along the way.

Feral cat policy will fail

House cat

An indoor house cat is safe from outdoor dangers, and the birds are safer. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Dec.10, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, as a column on the opinion page. “Feral cat policy will fail.”

By Barb Gorges

Last month, the Cheyenne City Council passed an ordinance allowing the Cheyenne Animal Shelter to implement a “trap, neuter, vaccinate and release program” for feral cats in the city.

The shelter staff is tired of euthanizing cats–84 last month alone, many more in spring months–and sees this as a proactive measure.

The Community Cat Initiative allows “community cat caregivers” to bring in feral cats and pay $30 to sterilize and vaccinate then release them, their ears tipped so they can easily be recognized as neutered.

Normally, unwanted cats, if not adoptable (and there is a barn cat adoption program for the less sociable), are euthanized.

I object to the TNR program, as it is referred to, for several reasons.

One is, I love cats. Our current feline, an indoor cat, is pushing 16 and is curled up on my shoulder as I write this.

I think more inhumane than euthanizing them is leaving cats outdoors. Feral cats as well as roaming family pets encounter life-threatening dangers: vehicles, predators–including other cats, not to mention inhospitable weather.

Conversely, feral cats untrapped—and unvaccinated—are public, human, health concern.

Why tolerate cats running loose, but not dogs?

It’s also inhumane to leave wildlife at the mercy of a non-native predator like the cat. Many of our native birds here on the prairie are ground nesters, easy prey, as are small mammals.

In the U.S., free-roaming domestic cats kill an estimated 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion birds and 6.9 to 20.7 billion mammals each year, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sponsored-study. More recent studies show it could be more.

Nowhere in the literature has “trap, neuter, vaccinate and release” been shown to be successful in controlling feral cat populations.

On paper, the program sounds good, and I wish it worked.

Simply put, if you have a colony of cats and neuter all of them, the colony will die out when the last cat dies. Problem solved in the space of a feral cat’s lifetime—probably less than five years.

In real life, no agency practicing “trap, neuter, vaccinate and release” has been able to trap enough cats to substantially lower the population.

Cheyenne’s policy, waiting for the public to bring feral cats in, is doomed to fail even more rapidly.

Trapping cats is a bit like herding them. Plus, do the soft-hearted have deep enough pockets?

A staff member at the shelter said they are pursuing grants that would allow for a more aggressive “trap, neuter, vaccinate and release” program.

Meanwhile, we’ll have an ever-increasing feral cat population (think about lying awake at night listening to cat fights) until nature finally deals with it—probably an ugly new and deadly disease. Not very humane.

Here are some more humane suggestions.

Hunt for nests of kittens and bring them in to be neutered and adopted at the age they can be socialized and become happy indoor cats. But don’t allow them to be released outdoors.

Also, instead of charging people to bring in feral cats for neutering and vaccination, pay them $30. Putting a price on a species sent the passenger pigeon to extinction and nearly did the same for the buffalo.

Next, release adult, neutered feral cats, if they cannot be socialized, in a cattery, a place where they are safe and wildlife is safe from them.

Those options I’ve mentioned take money. Meanwhile, the problem grows.

I don’t think it is fair to ask people charged with sheltering animals to do what really needs to be done from the wildlife and public health standpoint.

The wildlife agencies need to step in, as they have in Hawaii, another place where non-native predators, including feral cats, are decimating the wildlife.

Removing feral cats, euthanizing them, is not a happy proposition. Each one looks just like our own cat.

We need the fortitude to take actions to insure the well-being of cats. Releasing them to fend for themselves is not good for them, nor for wildlife.

If you want to read a balanced look at this topic, see this Nebraska Extension Service publication, “Feral Cats and Their Management,” http://ianrpubs.unl.edu/live/ec1781/build/ec1781.pdf.

Procrastinate for the sake of the birds

American Robin family

American Robin nestlings hatch naked and blind. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published June 14, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Putting off yard work helps wildlife. It’s best to delay some chores until young birds have time to hatch and leave the nest as fledglings.”

2014 Update: My robin saga continues in the column published June 28, 2001, in the post following this one.

By Barb Gorges

Procrastination can be a good thing. Spring snowstorms will melt off the driveway by midday if I don’t shovel, and fancy computers eventually are available at garage sales.

On the north side of my house is a deep, dark and quiet forest.

Sheltered by the next-door neighbor’s house, when the wind gets there it drops in speed – and drops litter.

The junipers probably were cute little shrubs when they were planted along the foundation 40 years ago. Today they are leviathans, reaching over my head, 8 to 10 feet high and as wide and deep.

I keep thinking I should cut a few branches at Christmas – especially ones shading the window by my computer. The evergreen smell would be nice. But then I forget, and it’s May or June before I dig out the pruning saw.

Why do I procrastinate gardening and yard work, which I enjoy?

Perhaps because my other obligations are less forgiving of missed deadlines. Other than the lawn, of which the boys have charge, things grow slowly enough around here there’s never a pruning crisis – especially since I cultivate the natural look.

Well, the stars finally lined up right last week, and I found the pruning saw and headed for the woods, intent on bagging a few branches.

Actually, the hunting euphemism doesn’t translate here. We don’t bag branches. We keep them for yard projects and firewood.

I sawed around the computer window and moved to the next window, but as I grabbed a branch, it squawked.

Mama Robin flew up out of her nest and chastised me from the edge of the neighbor’s roof as I hurriedly backed away.

Deep, dark woods may be the epitome of safe bird habitat, but this is the first time the robins have chosen it over the trees out front. In fact, the nest is not deep in the juniper branches, but sort of on top.

By pressing my forehead to the window from inside the house before Mama Robin settled back in, I could see at least three eggs. When she’s on the nest, she sits as stoically as an avian Buddha.

A few days later, I had a call from someone concerned because her family cat had slightly mauled a baby bird that fell out of its nest. What should she do?

Here are some suggestions in order of preference.

First, try putting the nestling back in the nest. Some young, however, will just fling themselves out of the nest again, or the nest may be too high for you to reach safely.

Or, if the baby is fairly well feathered and close to being able to fly, let the parents take care of it on the ground. Keep pets and children away.

Once, I tried making a nest out of a bucket, placing it where the parents would visit and feed the baby, but it evidently wasn’t cat-proof.

The next option is to buy worms where fish bait is sold and start feeding the baby yourself.

Kelly, who works at the Cheyenne Pet Clinic, said baby birds only need to be fed once a day.

If you are squeamish about worms, try foods from this list she recommends: brown rice (cooked), frozen corn, cooked pinto beans, crushed dog kibble, soaked millet, lean meat, white cheese, fruit (especially oranges), green vegetables, carrots or squash. For treats, try dabs of yogurt, cottage cheese or dried fruit like raisins—but no nuts.

Kelly also said technicians at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, located at the clinic, are happy to feed baby birds for you to get them ready for release.

Let me get on my soapbox here for two ideas.

First, nature doesn’t expect every seed to lead to a flower or every bird egg to lead to flight. Some progeny have to become food for others, whether it’s baby worms feeding robins or baby robins feeding hawks.

But on the other hand, bird blood on your cat’s paws is not part of the natural balance because domestic cats are not native to our area.

Letting your cat play with baby birds, besides doing damage to the individual birds and bird species in general, does nothing for the cat that you and a catnip mouse couldn’t do better indoors. And it’s safer for your cat, which won’t be exposed to bird-borne diseases and other outdoor hazards.

You could build a screened porch-type kennel like a friend of mine has for her cats. They still get to go outside, but everyone is safe. This is a great time of year to procrastinate over the right things.

Put off mowing the prairie, where killdeer and meadowlarks nest on the ground. Save the tree pruning and ditch clearing until the young have cleared their nests by June or July. Let the wild tangle at the back provide escape from predators.

According to Kenn Kaufman’s write-up on robins in “Lives of North American Birds,” I may have to wait 12 to 14 days for Mama Robin’s eggs to hatch and another 14-16 days for the young to fledge.

While I practice procrastinating pruning, if I open the window and let strains of Mozart float down to Mama Robin’s nest while the chicks are still in the shell, will they grow up smarter and survive better than other robins? Or will they emerge from the nest chirping the “Piano Sonata in B flat Major”?

When birds look like they need help

fledgling

A baby bird is hand-fed at the Allen Centre. Because this bird has feathers, it has graduated from nestling to fledgling and probably fell or jumped out of its nest. Parents usually feed fledglings wherever they are.

Published May 9, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “They look helpless but they probably don’t need rescuing. Everyone wants to be a springtime hero, but is that tiny bird on the ground in dire straits?”

2014 Update: The Cheyenne Pet Clinic, which has a federal license to treat wild birds, has developed a program informally known as “Nestling Nursemaids.” People are trained to care for nestlings in their home, receiving a food mix designed for them, then care for them until they can be released.

By Barb Gorges

Nothing is as appealing as rescuing a helpless baby bird fluttering on the ground. Everyone wants to be a springtime hero. Becoming one appears to be as easy as scooping up the tiny bird, but is that the right thing to do?

Laura Conn, veterinary technician, knows first hand how many times a year nestlings are rescued because they all seem to end up at the Cheyenne Pet Clinic where she works.

“People find them on the ground or don’t see Mom for awhile, or they want to remove a nest from the threat of outdoor cats,” Conn said.

Last year it was 39 common grackles, a dozen robins and well over 50 house sparrows besides an assortment of other bird species.

“It can be a couple nests a day. Sometimes because of construction, workers will bring them in,” said Conn.

The clinic’s standard advice is that unless birds are in immediate danger, it is safer to return them to the nest. “But everyone wants to bring them in,” said Conn.

One myth is that a baby bird alone on the ground has been abandoned. However, if it has feathers already, it may have been pushed out of the nest by its parents who are probably nearby, keeping an eye on the youngster as it makes the transition to independence.

This would be especially true of birds that hatch precocial young, the young of meadowlarks, killdeer and other ground nesting birds. The chicks hatch with feathers and can practically run as soon as they depart the shell.

Altricial young are those helpless, naked nestlings like robins and sparrows that need a few weeks for feathers to grow in.

If the nestling is found completely or semi-featherless, the best thing to do is put it back in the nest. If the nest has been destroyed, fashion one from a basket or bucket.

The second myth is that once a human has touched a baby bird, the parents will abandon it. Not true, said Conn.

As for marauding cats, Conn said young birds probably have a better chance of surviving under the protection of an angry parent bird than if they are brought into the clinic.

The rate of survival of young birds transferred to the clinic is one in three.

At the clinic the bird is assessed for damages. Falling may produce injuries making the bird impossible to rehabilitate. Injuries from cats are seldom seen since there’s usually nothing left of the baby bird after a feline encounter, Conn explained.

If the nestling is in good shape, it is popped into the incubator. Then it’s time to mix up special mash, either meant for young poultry or special mixes for wild birds.

A rescued baby bird needs feeding every two hours, at least until 10 p.m., when the last clinic employee goes home. All the employees pitch in at the height of nestling season, even the front desk, said Conn.

The Cheyenne Pet Clinic is the only local facility with the necessary federal permit for handling wild birds. It is not legal to tend wild birds without a permit.

Robert Farr, the clinic’s founding veterinarian, said he would be interested in hearing from anyone with previous experience who would like to help by taking orphans home. Volunteers can work under the clinic’s permit and the clinic will provide the food.

Conn has been caring for baby birds since she started at the clinic as a volunteer 19 years ago. While injured large wild birds also come in, such as the great horned owl which was recently recovering from tangling with a barbed wire fence, most are sent on to the veterinary hospital in Fort Collins. But small birds are cared for until their release.

Ducklings are also brought in occasionally, but said Conn, “We try to find someone to take them quick—they don’t do well here.”

Some birds that come in are very prone to stress and succumb quickly while others seem hardier, said Conn.

Some summers, it seems like all the young survive and other summers they don’t. The older the nestling is, the better its chances of surviving. Some birds just seem to be tougher, like robins.

Depending on how old the bird was when it came in, it can take two or three weeks before it is ready for release.

First, it has to be able to eat on its own. “It’s hard to train them to eat,” said Conn. “We can’t do it as well as their mothers. And they have to be able to fly well on their own, too.”

Typically, the birds are taken to the park where there are plenty of trees, since most of the rescued young are tree-nesting species. Sometimes employees will release the birds in their own backyards where they can leave food out, but the young birds don’t stay around long.

Rescuing a helpless young bird is a noble act, but knowing when a bird needs rescuing is even nobler.

How to help wild birds:

Dazed adult bird on ground

Most likely it has run into a window. Carefully set it on a branch where a cat can’t reach it while it recovers. If birds often hit your window, consider applying a shiny decal to the outside of the glass, or hang netting or something shiny in front of it during the spring and early summer.

Injured adult or young bird

The Cheyenne Pet Clinic routinely provides assessment and first aid. Call 635-4121. For hawks and owls and other large species, please consult the staff on how best to transport the bird to avoid further injury to it or injury to you.

Feathered young bird on ground

Most often, the parent birds are waiting for you to go away so they can feed their almost independent youngster. So, go away! However, if the neighbor’s cat is crouched nearby, see if you can get the youngster to perch on a tree branch.

Featherless young bird on ground

Try to return it to its nest. Retired wildlife biologist Art Anderson said that if the young are about the same age or size, any nest will do.

Damaged nest

If the nest has broken or can’t be set back up, make one from a basket or bucket filled with dry leaves and grass. Attach it to the original location, if it is safe, or nearby. Place the remains of the old nest and the young birds in it and the parent birds will find them.

Ground nesting birds

During prime nesting season, May through mid-July, refrain from mowing the prairie or allowing dogs and cats off leash. Planting trees also adversely affects the survival of ground nesting birds such as killdeer and meadowlarks. Predators—hawks and eagles—will use the trees for perches while they scan for prey.

Habitat improvements

Tree-nesting birds benefit from the planting of more shrubs and trees for food and cover. Cover is the vegetation into which they can disappear to avoid predators or bad weather. Think about adding a water source too. And eliminate pesticides. Check the National Audubon Society’s “Audubon at Home” Web site at www.audubon.org/bird/at_home.

Keep cats indoors

Cats don’t need to be allowed to run free, killing small birds and animals, in order to have a full and happy life. Just ask any contented kitty lying on a cushy pillow in a sunny window. Plus, indoor cats have longer and healthier lives. For help in turning your mini-tiger into a real house cat, visit the American Bird Conservancy site at www.abcbirds.org/cats or get information from the Cheyenne Pet Clinic.

Wild bird rehabilitator permit

The first requirement is 100 hours of experience. Check other qualifications at www.fws.gov. Look under Permits, then Applications, then “MBTA,” short for Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Or call the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Migratory Bird Permit Office, 303-236-8171.

What’s Fluffy hunting today? The cost of housecats hunting

Cat watching fish

Just because cats love to hunt doesn’t mean they can’t be happy chasing toys instead of birds, or watching wildlife through the window.

Published May 11, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “The lion inside: Do you know what your hunting machine is up to today?”

2014 Update: Check with the American Bird Conservancy, www.abcbirds.org, for more information about the bird – cat conflict. The companies carrying cat enclosure and fencing products listed at the end are all still in business.

By Barb Gorges

When you see a cat walking along the top of your backyard fence or concealed under a bush ready to spring, what comes to mind?

— “Another pesky predator after my chickens!”

— “I wonder if that’s the cat that left nothing but a pile of feathers under my bird feeder?”

— “Fluffy! Where have you been the last five days? I’ve been worried sick.”

All of these responses illustrate aspects of the issue of domestic cats roaming the outdoors.

But the impacts of house and feral cats on wildlife is a growing problem – especially as felines eclipse dogs as the most popular pets in the United States.

If more cat owners knew how harmful their pets can be to birds and ground-nesting mammals, experts say, they might be more careful about letting these hunting machines loose in the yard.

Cats—predators or prey?

The issue of cats on the loose heated up last month when Wisconsin sportsmen voted to recommend feral cats be classified as an unprotected species, allowing them to be hunted.

The reasoning behind the vote was that domestic cats compete with native species like hawks and owls for prey.

Cats’ impact is estimated at millions of bird deaths every year in this country and probably more than a billion deaths of small mammals. Also, feral cats often carry diseases that endanger domestic and wild animals as well as people.

While the Wisconsin sportsmen want their recommendation to go to the legislature, the governor has said he will not sign any bill allowing cat hunting.

But Wyoming statutes classify stray cats with the red fox, coyote, porcupine, raccoon and skunk as predators that may be hunted without a license all year [where hunting is allowed].

While Wisconsin won’t be implementing hunting policies like Wyoming’s any time soon, the discussion has been successful in raising awareness of the feral cat problem.

The impact on birds

Where do roaming cats come from? A surprising number are companion animals of people who regularly let their cats out.

A study by Carol Fiore and Karen Brown Sullivan at Wichita State University examined the hunting habits of 41 pet cats allowed outdoors.

They found that 83 percent of the cats killed birds. They also verified the deaths of 4.2 birds per cat per year, but added that kills undoubtedly were under-reported.

[Few cats brought kills home. However, fecal analysis for less than half of the cats (less than half the owners provided indoor litter boxes) showed that they were eating far more birds than their owners were aware of.]

Surprisingly, the researchers found that the most prolific cat hunters had been declawed. That dispelled the myth that a well-fed, or clawless, cat doesn’t hunt.

Fiore and Brown also found that 43 percent of the bird kills happened in May and June. That coincides with the nesting season.

Non-game bird biologist Andrea Cerovski of the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish said ground nesting birds and those that nest low in shrubs are the most susceptible.

A fledgling can’t sustain flight for long, and even young raptors can have problems with cats. She said waterfowl are also susceptible when they molt and are waiting for new flight feathers to grow.

Since cats are not a part of the natural ecosystem, Cerovski said, they are particularly hard not only on birds, but also on amphibians, reptiles and small mammals.

Each natural predator species fills a niche in the ecosystem in balance with its prey, Cerovski said. But cats kill additional prey. That means the populations of prey species might not reproduce enough to keep up, so the natural predators have less to eat and their populations drop as well.

Susceptible ground nesting species in this area include vesper, lark, savannah and grasshopper sparrows; lark bunting; western meadowlark; and killdeer. Cats also can disrupt nesting ducks and geese as well as game birds since most of them also nest on the ground.

A paper published by the Journal of Land Use and Environmental Law says that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it unlawful to kill migratory birds. The owner of a cat that kills them could conceivably be charged.

Few birds survive a cat encounter. Veterinarian Robert Farr cares for injured birds.

“I don’t see a lot of injured songbirds,” he said. “Most of the time if a cat gets a bird, that’s it.”

Colonies of feline hunters

In a study published by The Wildlife Society in 1999, two California parks were compared for their populations of feral cats in relation to the number of birds found at the parks.

One park had no feral cats; the other had a colony of 25 cats that were fed daily. There were twice as many birds seen in the park without cats. Two ground-nesting species were not seen at all in the park with cats.

Cat colonies begin when owners fail to find lost cats or owners dump unwanted pets. The homeless cats then gather where there is garbage or someone puts out food.

Sue Castaneda, director of the Cheyenne Animal Shelter, said cats are not allowed to run loose in Cheyenne. Although no licensing is required, cats must be tagged for rabies.

But according to Castenada, few stray cats wear tags.

Of the 2,431 cats picked up or turned in to the shelter last year, only 57 were reclaimed.

Veterinarian Karen Parks, owner of the Cat Clinic of Cheyenne, agreed that in this area, cats don’t get the same respect as dogs.

“This is a human caused problem,” she said. “(Cats) are looked at as disposable property.”

While she knows cat colonies are unpopular with wildlife biologists, the managed cat colony is a compromise that suits her, Parks says.

She said such colonies can be found everywhere in town, including behind her clinic.

Three years ago she trapped, neutered and vaccinated 13 cats and began feeding. Since then, there have been no kittens. The colony is down to nine cats, and although two new felines showed up, they appeared tame and Parks was able to trap them and find them homes.

Parks’ colony is unusual. Other managers suffer from burnout or depletion of funds trying to keep up with neutering and vaccinating the new cats that move in.

Vaccination is an equally important part of Parks’ program.

The American Bird Conservancy says that cats are the domestic animal most frequently reported as rabid. Feral cats can transmit several diseases to native wild cats like mountain lions, bobcats, and the Florida panther. They also carry diseases transmissible to humans.

Currently, Parks sends six or seven feral cats a week to Colorado State University for spaying, neutering and vaccination before returning them to where they were trapped. She said it gives veterinary students experience and, if no other cats were ever abandoned, would eventually be the end of cat colonies.

Roaming is risky for cats

Parks said 85 percent of her clients keep their cats indoors or supervise them outdoors.

The idea that cats are smart and can fend for themselves is inaccurate: the life span of the average stray cat is only three years, said Tara Knight, Parks’ assistant.

According to the Humane Society, “Cats kept exclusively indoors often live to 17 or more years of age.”

Farr said 95 percent of feline injuries he sees are caused by outdoor hazards. Cats are hit by cars, preyed on by coyotes, get in fights, develop wound infections or are poisoned by antifreeze. They can also be attacked by dogs and abused by people.

Tips for keeping both your cat – and wild birds – safe

Keeping cats safe

Spay or neuter your cat

Veterinarian Karen Parks of the Cat Clinic of Cheyenne said she has no tolerance for clients’ desires to let their cats produce litters. Cheyenne Animal Shelter statistics show there are plenty of cats that need homes without adding more kittens.

Keep your cat indoors

The American Bird Conservancy’s “Cats Indoors!” campaign, www.abcbirds.org, has many ideas for turning outdoor cats into happy indoor cats. Play with them!

Outdoor enclosures

Build or buy an outdoor enclosure where your cat can safely be left. Check with the SafeCat Outdoor Enclosure, www.just4cats.com, The Cat Enclosure Kit, www.cdpets.com, or Kitty Walk, www.midnightpass.com.

Adopt a friend for your cat

Consider adopting a companion cat or dog of the opposite sex.

Grooming and cleaning

Trim claws every week or two. Scoop the litter box daily. If you use clumping litter, it needs to be changed only every two to four weeks.

Don’t feed stray cats

Take them to the animal shelter. They may be someone’s lost pet. If not, adopt them, get them spayed or neutered, vaccinate them and make them an indoor cat.

Keeping birds safe

Putting a bell on a cat doesn’t work because birds don’t associate its tinkling noise with danger. Keeping cats indoors or under control is the only solution.

But what about your neighbor’s cat?

–Ask your neighbor to keep the cat indoors or in an outdoor enclosure. If the neighbor does not, humanely trap the cat and take it to the shelter and explain to whom it belongs.

–Keep bird feeders away from places where cats may hide. Try placing poultry or rabbit wire fencing around bird feeders and bird baths. The fence need only be 2 feet high and 4 feet in diameter. If a cat tries to jump over it, it gives birds a chance to fly away.

–Keep your cat in your yard, or keep other cats out, by installing cat-proof fencing. Two brands are the Cat Fence-In System, www.catfencein.com, and Affordable Cat Fence, www.catfence.com. Both are mesh netting systems attached to the top of the fence.

Spring birds visit backyard

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Yellow-headed Blackbirds nest in the cattail marshes around Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published May 31, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Backyard beckons bevy of birds.”

2014 Update: We have had 79 bird species visit or fly over our backyard so far.

By Barb Gorges

It’s hard to eat breakfast, lunch or dinner these days without picking up the binoculars to admire the birds on my backyard wall.

When I e-mailed my last column to the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, mentioning the paucity of birds in my yard and all the sightings in everyone else’s, a little bird must have been sitting on the wire listening in.

The next day, May 11, my yard was inundated with pine siskins, goldfinches and chipping sparrows, all accented by a black-headed grosbeak, Bullock’s oriole and rose-breasted grosbeak.

A lazuli bunting showed up, too, and came back with half a dozen friends. They look like small eastern or western bluebirds, with robin-colored, red breasts.

It turns out the buntings like millet, something I usually don’t put out because it attracts house sparrows. Dave Felley gave us half a bag when he moved so we’ve been spreading it out on the top of our concrete-block wall. The buntings have been lining up shoulder-to-shoulder with the mourning doves every day since.

When I observed a house finch drinking out of the dog’s water dish, I decided it was time to try the Solar Sipper again. It’s like a fancy dog dish with a removable black plastic bowl inside a red plastic bowl.   It comes with a black lid that’s supposed to absorb heat and keep the water from freezing in winter. The lid has a hole in it for birds to stick their heads through and get a drink.

The birds never learned to use it but the dog learned to knock off the lid and drink.

This time I put it on the back wall without the lid, and birds are using it. The grackles threw in some stale bread and hard raisins and retrieved them when they got soggy. But I still caught a grackle using the real dog dish on the back step.

The green-tailed towhee showed up a week after everyone else. He’s between robin and sparrow size, and he holds his tail up at a right angle. His greenish-gray coloring makes him invisible where he hangs out under the bushes, unless you see the flashy white patch under his chin or his rust-colored cap.

I had three people tell me about western tanagers in their yards before I saw one in my neighborhood. He was drinking water puddled in a crack in the street. These tanagers are so tropical looking–orange head, yellow body and black and white wings.

You might mistake a black-headed grosbeak for a robin, until you look more closely. They are more orange than robin-red, their heads are blacker, and their wings and tails are spotted with white. Their thick “gross”—or big—beaks are for cracking seeds rather than drilling for worms.

The rose-breasted grosbeak looks pretty much the same, but instead of orange it has a white belly and a dark pink bib. I’ve now seen one in the yard four days out of 14. Perhaps I wasn’t looking hard enough the other days.

Other than mourning doves and robins, I don’t expect any of these spring birds to nest here. Most are on their way to the mountains or farther north.

Some birds get a very early start with nesting and breeding. We’ve gone out listening for owls in February because that’s when owls set up their territories and hoot at their rivals.

Meridan rancher Dave Hansen was out branding May 19 when he noticed two great horned owls toddling around his home pasture. Had they blown out of the nest?

It isn’t unusual for these owls to leave the nest by now, even if they aren’t ready to fly yet. They are as big as the adults, just sort of fluffy, sort of chubby, like a two-year old wearing cloth diapers and plastic pants.

As soon as they learn to fly, they will return to obscurity in the treetops and spend the summer with their parents learning to hunt rodents.

This is the most important time of year to keep all cats indoors–especially if you live out on the prairie with the ground-nesting grassland birds. It’s also important not to mow right now.

Cats, unlike native predators, are more numerous and will kill for fun rather than food.

I hope whoever belongs to the gray cat that visits my yard will keep him home. Otherwise I have to put my dog on guard duty first thing in the morning, and then the green-tailed towhee won’t come.

Two bird watchers from California traveling through Cheyenne made arrangements to meet me down at Lions Park the windy day we had whitecaps on the lake.

Other than the western grebes, mallards, a few yellow-rumped warblers and a tree full of goldfinches, there wasn’t much to see, and we decided not to walk around the lake.

On the way back to our cars I mentioned the only other sure-fire bird observation we could make would be the yellow-headed blackbirds over by the cattails.

“Yellow-headed blackbirds?” responded the Californians. “We’ve seen them only three other places!”

So we headed into the wind and were soon rewarded with a yellow-headed male strolling the path until he was at our feet.

Then he flew up and engaged in aerial shenanigans with a red-winged blackbird a few feet above our heads. The Californians were delighted.

So, one birder’s blackbird is another’s special species. Should I ever look up the Santa Monica Audubon chapter, I wonder what locally abundant bird they have that will be my fabulous find?